Sunday 23 October 2016

Kevin J Sullivan: Ireland's next major step toward inclusion would be giving a vote to citizens abroad

Kevin J Sullivan

Published 21/04/2016 | 02:30

Photo: Steve Humphreys
Photo: Steve Humphreys

As Ireland moves on from its Centennial celebration, Irish citizens around the world are still making sense of it all. We were delighted that the Irish abroad were featured in the Centenary closing event and even more pleased that the video uniting the Irish abroad with the Irish at home in reciting the Proclamation got great reviews.

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Yet, at the same time, our awareness of our exclusion is heightened, as the contrast between old ideals and current realities are laid bare.

While the nation has the Proclamation fresh in mind, we would like to highlight that its signatories called for a new national government representative of "the whole people of Ireland" and elected by "the suffrages of all her men and women". That word 'all' would surely include us, Ireland's overseas citizens, including one of six Irish-born people. Yet here we are a hundred years later, without the vote.

Irish emigrants played an enormous part in the Rising. Thomas Clarke and James Connolly, both American citizens, returned to Ireland to lead the rebellion; the Kimmage Brigade, made up of emigrants from London, Glasgow and Manchester, fought in the GPO; Clan na Gael in the United States financed the effort; and hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrants in the United States bought millions of dollars in Irish Bonds to help create the Free State.

All through the hard economic decades, Irish people abroad sent back remittances to keep Ireland afloat, sending much of their wages home instead of saving for their own futures. In the 1990s the Irish in America succeeded in getting President Clinton and the United States involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland. And when Enda said come back for the Gathering and that Ireland was "open for business", we showed up.

Yet still no vote. It says so right there in the rules - "If you are an Irish citizen living abroad you cannot be entered on the register of electors. This means that you cannot vote in an election or referendum here in Ireland." Concise, clear and to the point: we can't vote.

Hundreds of thousands have left Ireland in the last few years to find work. Many would like to come back - but in the meantime, we would like our right to equality as citizens to be respected. Our entitlement to be part of the Irish Nation is enshrined in Article 2 of the Constitution.

So we've made some modest proposals on emigrant political participation for the new programme for government, and with a coalition of organisations have sent them on to the Taoiseach.

We would like to be able to vote for the next President of Ireland and vote in constitutional referendums. It would also help if Ireland would create a modern electoral commission and absentee ballot process - over 125 nations and territories have them up and running. Indeed, Ireland sits at the bottom of the EU tables when it comes to protecting the rights of its emigrant citizens to vote.

The Irish political class speaks highly of its worldwide diaspora - the global Irish are always welcome to bring money and business. But the establishment is more wary of its overseas citizens having a voice in the political system than just about any other government in the EU. An Irish citizen who intends to be away for more than 18 months loses the right to vote the day he or she leaves. As you leave your family and friends behind at the departure gates in Dublin Airport, you also lose your most basic right as a citizen.

So we would like, for our part, to be just as clear, concise and to the point as well. Ireland's current electoral system perpetuates a two-tiered system of citizenship and is fundamentally undemocratic. It falls short of the inclusive democratic vision and language of the Proclamation - and of today's global democratic norms. The leaders of the Rising had a democratic imagination and zeal for equality. The leaders of today seem content to maintain the status quo.

The pride and loyalty of the Irish abroad is legendary, and it translates into concrete help - whether it's investing, networking into new markets, acting as informal cultural and tourism ambassadors, philanthropy, and more. Yet we have no political voice on policies that can have a direct impact on our lives: decisions made about the economy will directly affect our ability to return; social welfare policies impact our access to job seekers' and caretakers' benefits for returning emigrants; and more than a few emigrants are still paying taxes on homes we own back in Ireland.

For many of us abroad, any changes in spousal and descendent access to citizenship will affect our families, those with a substantial work record in Ireland will be affected by changes in the contributory pension levels, those of us with private pension accounts in Ireland were affected by the pension levy, older and vulnerable people are affected by the emigrant support budget, and we all are affected by the diaspora strategy.

Michael D did a splendid job leading Ireland during the Centennial weekend. He also seems to fully understand and appreciate the relationship between Ireland and the Irish abroad. In a 2012 lecture, he said: "The impact of the Irish immigrant experience on Ireland itself was creative, profound and lasting. Modern Ireland was constructed as much in Edinburgh and New York as in Galway or Dublin."

We believe that this will be no less true in the future than it has been in the past; that Ireland going forward will be constructed in London and Sydney as in Galway and Dublin, in New York and Shanghai as in Limerick and Cork.

The Irish abroad have been contributing to Ireland's success for 100 years now and will do even more in the years ahead. We can construct the new "Global Island", as the DFA likes to call Ireland, and make Ireland a more just and equal nation as well. But we also hope that our friends, neighbours and fellow citizens back home will finally see us as equal citizens as well.

Ireland took a major step toward inclusion in voting Yes on last year's same-sex marriage referendum - and we hope that the same spirit of equality will allow citizens at home to see our desire to vote in the same vein. We're part of the "all" in the Proclamation. The line that calls for "cherishing all of her children equally" is quite important to us. We hope you think the same. It's right there in the video. Feel free to watch it again. We would like to vote.

Kevin J Sullivan wrote this article with the assistance of Noreen Bowden. They are co-founders of, a global coalition of Irish emigrant groups

Irish Independent

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